Save My Game
Reward Creativity
Challenge Without Frustrating
By Jason Nelson-Brown

This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!

Problem: Encouraging Creativity

I have a problem with the horribly uncreative players that are my friends. I DM a game with four other people playing. I figure their classes are irrelevant, but we have a cleric, a bard, a wizard, and a barbarian. I figure that's enough spread to be creative in terms of problem solving. For example, the cliche of opening a locked door is to pull a book out or remove a torch. I made it so they had to turn a brazier in the corner of the room. It took them one real hour to figure it out, after me hinting at it! How can I breed creativity (at least a little) in them?

-- Roger, from AskWizards.com

Last time, I addressed Roger's question it was pretty much to tell him that he was asking the wrong question entirely and that he needed to reorient his thinking about the challenges he created. They need to be more relevant to the characters' abilities and less to the players having to guess what he was thinking. His question, however, does have some merit. How do you make players become more creative?

That's a tough question, because creativity is in the eye of the beholder. What one person calls creative another person calls random. Consider the example above -- is it creative to guess that moving books or furniture is going to open doors? Maybe, or maybe it's just the patience to push, pull, prod, tap, and wiggle every single thing in the room until something happens. Maybe it's desperate frustration, touching everything and hoping for the best. Reaching the proper solution to Roger's brazier-door could come from creativity, tenacity, or just dumb luck.

The ultimate answer to how you breed creativity is by cultivating the ground for creativity to grow.

Talk about Metagame Assumptions

Roger has a metagame assumption -- the idea that moving furniture or books will trigger a door -- and he designed his challenge in part based on that metagame knowledge as well as his assumption that the players share this knowledge and are willing to access it as part of their D&D gameplay. That is a long string of assumptions. If any one of them breaks down, then the players will not guess the secret, at least not as a result of their metagaming.

Did the players see the same movies or read the same stories as you? Did they focus on and remember the same details about shifting furniture and secret doors? Do they have some logical reason to access that information about a memory of a story or movie and connect it to what is happening in the D&D game? Even if all of the above happens without a hitch, do they want to play off that knowledge? Their character has never seen that movie or read that story, or their character might be dumb as a rock or a savage barbarian to whom doors are a strange affectation, much less hidden and trick-trigger doors.

I say all this to make it clear that you need to talk to your players about the kinds of inspiration you take for your campaign. Talk about movies and books and other media that influence why you game and the style of adventure you like. Talk about past campaigns. I'm not asking you to spill your whole bag of tricks, but if you want players to play off of their personal knowledge, you need to give them some clue of what kinds of things are likely to come into play. If you are running a Ravenloft campaign inspired by your love of old horror and monster movies, they probably would think about that and the tropes of that genre when confronted by a player-knowledge puzzle such as this. If you are running a high-fantasy Forgotten Realms game, that assumption becomes less likely.

Heck, talk about adventures you ran in the past which influenced you and the kinds of challenges you like to work into the campaign. If you tell them that, in your game, they need to look in unexpected places to find things, talk first and kill later, and so on, then they will be able to act on that knowledge and everyone will have more fun. You are still making them play "guess what the DM is thinking," but at least you game them some insight and clues into what that might be.

Be Creative Yourself, and Leave Room for Creativity

Roger, your players ultimately could not be creative in solving your challenge because your challenge was not creative. Not because it was a trick door -- that's fine -- but it was a trick door with only one solution. You created a point in the adventure that could be solved only one way -- yours. You need to design challenges in a way that accounts for different ways of getting past. Think of what skills, spells, feats, or ideas a player might be able to use to circumvent the barrier. Put yourself in the players' shoes, and see how creative you can be. Until you do, you have little reason to complain about the players being uncreative when they are just giving back to you what you gave them.

Reward Creativity

This is probably the most important part. Let me use a spell example --

Why does magic missile get cast ten times as often as charm person or silent image (I'm using hyperbole to make a point, so don't bother quibbling over the numbers)? Because it always works, that's why. You can't go wrong with good ol' magic missile. Charm person? Well, your request wasn't reasonable, so new saving throw; or you can't speak their language, or they're just your friend and not your slave, so they won't do what you want. Silent image? Well, it's unrealistic, so they get a save bonus, or their friend saw through it, or whatever. Many players of spellcasters don't bother casting spells that require creativity because DMs rob them rather than reward them when they try to be creative. The DM comes up with all kinds of reasons why the spell must adhere to a strictly limited effect. I'm not saying that 1st-level (or any level) enchantments and illusions should be all-powerful and able to do anything, or that you shouldn't be wary of overly clever players trying to exploit loopholes or push beyond what should be possible -- but if you want creativity, you need to reward it.

'Reward' also means 'don't punish' the players. Let's say you've established that in your campaign, PCs will often need to search in unusual spots if they hope to find anything of importance. Let's say further that you then riddle those areas with traps and ambushes. What's more, every NPC the characters talk to lies to them or betrays them. Players are smart. They will quickly learn that you are messing with them and that they are better off ignoring those 'creative' outlets, because nine times out of ten they lead to trouble and pain. Sometimes those situations should hide traps, but not every time.

When it comes to rewards, remember that you should give out xp for characters avoiding encounters as well as bashing through them, or coming up with creative ideas for combat rather than just I-hit-you/you-hit-me slugfests until somebody drops, and for teamwork and coordination when overcoming obstacles or challenges. The Dungeon Master's Guide describes assigning CR to traps, but why not also to puzzles, tricks, and challenges that don't pose an immediate threat to life and limb? The same goes for obstacles that can be overcome with skills and wits or judicious use of party resources rather than brute force. You could establish ad hoc xp awards for the group for overcoming your challenges (or even to individual players with the 'best' ideas, though there is a danger of appearing to play favorites here). These are player-centered challenges, and the level of the characters ultimately has little to do with it. The player of a 1st-level commoner can be just as clever and creative as a 20th-level warlord, and that needs to be recognized.

However you do it, make it worth your players' while to venture off the beaten path. Not just in game mechanics, but in real accomplishments. A reward that requires real work by the players should result in a real benefit for the players -- finding a substantial reward, avoiding a significant danger, achieving a meaningful goal. If it's just the door to the next hallway, what a come-down. Creativity can be its own reward, but to breed or cultivate it, you need to sweeten the pot to get things moving.

Have a question for the Save My Game column? Head over to the message boards: What's a DM to Do or What's a Player to Do. Be sure to include "Save My Game" as part of your message's title. Or, send us a question directly, to Ask Wizards -- and again, be sure to include "Save My Game" in the subject line.

About the Author

Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, and son Allen. He just finished his doctorate in education and is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981.


1995-2008 Wizards of the Coast, Inc., a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. All Rights Reserved.